Who was there: Geeknights' Brandon DeCoster and Scott Rubin held forth at PAX Prime 2011 to talk about what designers can learn from games lost to time.
What they talked about: DeCoster and Rubin began their panel by referencing Dan Simmons' novel Hyperion, and a speech made therein. The far-future tale includes a speech by a character who is essentially the president of the galaxy. Afterward, the president is approached and praised on the speech, but the character says that it was actually stolen from long-forgotten leaders like Winston Churchill and Abraham Lincoln.
DeCoster and Rubin feel the game industry can learn from this story. They said that many aspiring designers are too occupied with creating bold, innovative ideas, when there are untapped mechanics from games gone by that hold excellent ideas that can be further fleshed out.
The first game they showed was Outlaw, which Atari originally released for arcades in 1976 and then brought to the Atari 2600 in 1978. The arcade original was first designed as a light-gun game, and Atari charged David Crane (who went on to cofound Activision and create Pitfall) with simply porting this game. Instead, Crane lifted the design of Midway's Gunfight, pitting two cowboys on opposite sides of the screen against each other.
The idea of Outlaw is that it's a two-player competitive game and the goal is to shoot the other cowboy 10 times. Players can shoot up, down, and straight, and bullets can also ricochet off walls. Outlaw had several modes, including ones where ammo is limited and where an object in the middle of the playfield is indestructible, destructible, or mobile.
DeCoster and Rubin advocated the beauty of this game's simplicity, in that it is a direct competition game with simple rules. This game offers an alternative take on the fighting genre, one that isn't so reliant on the execution that's seen in modern fighting games. It is also a highly psychological competitive game that relies on moderation, timing, and risk.
The next game shown off was Spy vs. Spy, which was released in the US by First Star Software in 1988. Like Outlaw, Spy vs. Spy is a direct versus game, where players have to collect four items and escape a building without being killed by the opposing spy and his traps. Only one item can be carried at a time until a player has found the briefcase, so it becomes a question of hiding found items while also setting traps to defend them, and then remembering where those items and traps are going forward.
What's interesting about Spy vs. Spy is that the game relies on players to look at what the other spy is doing, which creates a situation where they must hide the four objects in plain sight. Though the game's original design is highly problematic, it is worth revisiting due to its unique take on the versus puzzle game genre, the duo said, comparing it to a hide-and-seek-style game.
Next up, DeCoster and Rubin showed off Sopwith. The game, which was essentially a Choplifter clone, was developed in 1984 by a company called BMB Compuscience, and it was given away for free to promote their Ethernet competitor, ImagineNet. Sopwith was playable via local area network, which was quite innovative at the time.
DeCoster and Rubin took this opportunity to rail against developers for removing LAN functionality from games. The two said that it's a shame that LAN is largely being phased out due to piracy concerns, because this type of connected gameplay offers a number of advantages over online multiplayer. Namely, latency becomes a serious issue in online multiplayer, and developing network code is incredibly difficult for most developers. Plus, players simply miss out on the fun of playing a game in the same room with one another.
Sopwith could use a fairly straight update, the two said, with the game's mechanics given a graphical update and massive LAN support. The two posited a scenario in which the game featured matches of 10-versus-10, or better, four teams that each had 10 players.
Koei's Aerobiz Supersonic is the next game DeCoster and Rubin said that designers should draw inspiration from, largely due to its competitive simulation game mechanics. At its core, the game sees players serving as CEO of a major international airline. The goal is to secure a worldwide monopoly, and tactics involve cutthroat business dealings and shrewd business decisions.
The beauty of this game is that players compete right on top of one another. For instance, if one player seeks to establish a flight line from London to New York, another player can come in and offer the same flight for next to nothing, all for the purpose of driving the other person out of business. It would be like if SimCity let players build competing cities right next to each other, vying for residents and companies. The two also pointed out how novel it is for players to be in close-quarters competition straight from the beginning of the game.
Namco's Metal Marines is the next game the two showed. Currently available on Nintendo's Virtual Console, Metal Marines is a strategy game that operates outside of the Warcraft tradition. The single-player game posits a scenario in which players serve as a general in space. While they're away, Earth is conquered, and players must invade the planet to take it back. To do so, players set up on an island, establishing bases, turrets, and a standing metal marine army.
Players gain energy and money automatically, instead of having to send out workers to collect these resources, and they can be spent to fortify their bases and build offensive capabilities. The opposition maintains its own island fortress that is hidden to players. Attacking plays out a bit like in Minesweeper, where players pick a spot on the enemy island and then spend energy to deploy missiles and their army, uncovering installations as they go.
Rampart isn't exactly an obscure old game, but it is one that has had its mechanics overlooked. A strategy action game at its core, Rampart involves walling off a fortress and then placing cannons within the walls. There is then a round where players fire their cannons at the enemy to punch holes in those fortifications. Then, a rebuilding phase that draws heavily from Tetris ensues, and players attempt to both repair their walls and increase their territory under a time constraint. If the perimeter wall isn't fully rebuilt, it's game over.
What's interesting about this game, DeCoster and Rubin said, is that it has two completely separate gameplay types, defense and attack, that are combined into one. Nowadays, they said, companies pour their full budget into making, say, just a fighting game or just a role-playing game. The two said that it would be interesting to have an action RPG in which the action sequences played out like a fighting game.
Quote: "Look at any old game, take out all the stuff that's not fun, and use all the stuff that is fun, and you'll probably make a great game."--Brandon DeCoster.
Takeaway: DeCoster and Rubin believe that the game industry has uncovered any number of paths that game genres can travel down. However, up to this point, developers are using only a handful of these available paths. That's a shame, they believe, because there are plenty of hidden gems that are worth uncovering and improving upon.